New Horizons spacecraft just a year away from Pluto
Exactly one year from now, on July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto, and is set to give us the first close-up images of what the mysterious dwarf planet is like.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) New Horizons took off from Earth in January 2006 for a three-billion-mile journey to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt in the outer reaches of our solar system. The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped region of icy objects located beyond the orbit of Neptune.
"We're arriving at Pluto on the morning of the 14th of July 2015," says planetary scientist Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission. "It's Bastille day. To celebrate, we're storming the gates of Pluto."
Only as big as a grand piano, New Horizons is on an unmanned flyby mission to Pluto and beyond. The spacecraft will not actually land on the surface of the dwarf planet. It will only get as close as 6,000 miles away, a distance that was carefully calculated by Stern and his team to guarantee the clearest, sharpest images of Pluto's surface as possible.
This is the closest mankind can so far get to Pluto. The best images we have at the moment were taken by the Hubble space telescope, which provide nothing more than a few blurry markings on the surface of Pluto.
Months before the scheduled approach, New Horizons will be able to take distant photos, which Stern says will be nothing more than "fat pixels" of Pluto and its largest moon Charon by January next year. As the vehicle nears by April, it will be able to take photos more detailed than the ones taken by Hubble.
"The closest any spacecraft had ever been to Pluto was ridiculously far - about a billion miles," says Stern. "And we've been within a billion miles of Pluto for years now, so every day we break our own record."
The vehicle is soaring on its nine-and-a-half-year journey into space at an almost unbelievable speed of one million miles per day. This means it will only have a few days to explore the unknown world of Pluto and its five moons before it leaves the known edge of the solar system into the unknown realm beyond.
New Horizons is expected to go silent on July 14, 2015 so it can gather as much data about Pluto as possible. The spacecraft will then take around four and a half hours to send the information it has collected in signals back to Earth.
"You'll just have to wait just like we will to unwrap this present," says Stern. "Save the data - July 14, 2015 - humankind's encounter with Pluto."